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Christopher Veal: Male Vulnerability Is Not a Weakness

  • POSTED ON APRIL 13, 2022

Men and their machismo stereotypes have existed for generations. However, through positive support, men are gradually coming out of their shells and accepting their vulnerability. This has been the advocacy of Christopher Veal, a TEDx speaker, Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, and Co-Active Training Institute faculty member.

Christopher draws on his 25+ years of expertise in the military, public, and commercial sectors to empower his clients in understanding and expanding their real leadership style in order to make a meaningful impact in their world.

Christopher is aiming to de-stigmatize the term “vulnerability” for men in order for them to better connect with themselves and their world, as well as to contribute to the advancement of a healthier version of masculinity. He hosts the podcast The Vulnerable Man to help extend the conversation and to urge men to join him in defining what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Join us as we talk with Christopher about his experiences in the military and as a father, and how he uses coaching to help others understand that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness.

Can you please tell us about your time before you started coaching and were a part of CTI’s faculty? Could you please share a little about your personal history?

I spent nine years as an officer in the Marine Corps, and when I got out, I ended up finding a job that I say fit my skills but didn’t feed my soul. I was in construction, doing project management, and for about six and a half years. I was good at it, but I just knew that it wasn’t the work I was supposed to be doing. I’ve always been a lifelong learner.

While I was in the Marine Corps, I got my MBA, and when I got to the realization that construction wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my career, I knew it was time to figure out what the next thing was for me. I reached out to a mentor who was also one of my professors when I did my master’s program. She had put a bug in my ear about organizational development years earlier, so I started looking into it and wound up pursuing a Master’s in Organizational Leadership. While I was completing that program, two of my professors introduced themselves as coaches, and when they did, I got curious.

I thought to myself, what’s a coach? And when they explained it to me, I had a realization. I’ve kind of been doing that my whole life.

I asked them, “You’re saying I could do that and get paid to do it?” That was the start of it for me. I started doing some research, and I’m not normally a spreadsheet guy, but I started gathering a bunch of information. I looked at a bunch of coaching schools. I knew I wanted a school that was accredited, and as I started talking to schools, there were two that came down to my shortlist. Several of the other schools that I talked to mentioned the Co-Active coaching book at some point, or referenced Co-Active coaching.

I started thinking that if other coaching schools are talking about CTI, then that probably says something. The icing on the cake for me was when my local International Coaching Federation chapter did a coaching school orientation for one of their events. They had coaches from four or five different schools come in to demonstrate their coaching styles. Cynthia Loy Darst was there representing CTI and ended up coaching me as part of her demo. She’s amazing, in case you didn’t know.

When I got to experience Co-Active, I knew that this was what I wanted.

So, I signed up. I knew halfway through my first day of Fundamentals that this was where I’m supposed to be. I knew by the end of that Fundamentals class that one day I wanted to be up at the front of the room leading these courses. I was doing a lot of work in organizations at that time — organizational leadership, learning and development — and I wanted to combine my love of coaching and my love of teaching.

Do you think a long and impressive military history is uncommon in the coaching sphere?

I don’t know if there are a ton of coaches who are prior military. Leading courses, I’ve seen a handful of people. With the military, it tends to be a very directive, top-down type of approach. So, it’s not necessarily conducive to coaching, which is less focused on problem solving and mission accomplishment. Some people that have made the transition struggled, because they’re so used to saying, “Go do this, and get it done,” or “Here’s the problem; fix it.” I’m guessing there aren’t a ton of people who say, “I want to leave the military and then go into coaching.”

In the context of your military background, you indicated there are some aspects that don’t fit properly with the coaching mindset, specifically that they’re kind of Co-leading versus the problem solving, order giving, and order accepting from the military sector. What do you think sets you up for coaching based on these mindsets?

That’s a good question. My time in the military taught me a lot about leadership. Also, being able to go beyond the limits you think you have, that might have been a factor.

Being an officer in the military, you develop what we call “command presence.”

The kind of willingness and ability to be there and have a presence in space without being overwhelming — I think that probably served me as I stepped into coaching, because I could be confident but not feel like I have to dominate things. I think that’s helped my presence as I coach. In the military, you’ve got to be flexible, because you’ll make all kinds of plans and nothing will ever go the way you plan. Coaching can be similar, because you never know what your clients are going to show up with. You may be in the middle of something and they go on a tangent, so you have to be willing to go with them.

In 2013, did you complete the entire CTI curriculum and become certified at the time you were still doing construction work?

Yes and no. In 2013, I was already working in a learning and development role. I was fortunate that the organization I was working for at the time helped pay for my coach training, and in return I was able to coach internally in support of our leadership programs. It was a nice dovetailing of things that have worked out. I started my coach training in February of that year, started Certification in July, and earned my CPCC in early 2014.

What is it that you love about coaching?

That is a great question. The short version is I get to help people, and I don’t have to have all the answers. I get to help them find their own answers. I get to be of service to people, and I get to ask really dumb questions sometimes. I think the metaphor I most often use is I get to teach them how to fish instead of having to give them a fish. I know the impact coaching has had on me: I’ve got a coach; I always will. I found my coach right after my Fundamentals course. I know it has helped me get out of my way sometimes.

What’s your particular approach to coaching? What is your focus and the angle you take? What distinguishes Christopher’s coaching style?

In a nutshell, it’s me. We’ve got 65,000+ Co-Active coaches in the world today and that number is growing. Something that sets me and my style apart is that I bring vulnerability. I model it for my clients and also invite it from my clients. I also bring a lot of fun and goofiness into the coaching. Play is a big value of mine, so I bring it in, obviously, where it’s appropriate.

One of the things I found is a lot of the leaders I work are so serious all the time; they don’t know how to relax.

So, I definitely bring that element and help them incorporate that more in their lives. When I went through the core curriculum, I hated Process. It was difficult for me because I was so busy doing that I didn’t know how to slow down and just be. I find that’s what a lot of my clients come to me for, the slowing down, even though they don’t quite know it.

A lot of leaders that come to me, while they’re not actively looking to bring more vulnerability, that’s part of what comes out in our coaching. It helps them become a more powerful leader. Some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for have been willing to show some vulnerability and that they’re not perfect, and I like to help my clients have greater influence and impact by being more open as a leader.

On the subject of masculinity and vulnerability, let’s begin with the stigma associated with male vulnerability. How do you think it exists? How does it manifest?

The short answer is in my book, The Whole Man: Evolving Masculinity, that’s being published in June. I largely speak from my own experience and looking at the role models that I had in my life. They were men who didn’t show a lot of vulnerability. I don’t fault them for it because they were simply operating from the example of masculinity that they had been taught. When I thought about the TV shows and movies I grew up with, a lot of the portrayals of men were fairly one-dimensional.

Damaging ideas around masculinity stem from this stoic ideal: don’t show feelings, men never ask for help, they just get it done.

For a lot of these men, that’s what they saw. So they behaved in alignment with what was the expectation. As I explored this intersection of masculinity and vulnerability, I ended up starting a podcast in 2020 where I talk with men about the subject. A lot of these guys grew up with this limiting idea of what it means to “be a man.” Because of the role models men had, consciously or unconsciously, they start to pattern after it, and this cycle of unhealthy and limited masculinity persists.

I began interviewing men in 2016 about vulnerability, and one of the questions I ask is, “What gets in the way of you being more vulnerable?” Some of the common themes are, “I don’t want to be seen as less,” and “I don’t want to be seen a s weak,” and “I don’t want to be seen as not a man.” And then I ask them, “If a good friend of yours came up and shared something with you that he was struggling with, what would you think about him?” Almost every man says, “I would feel proud that he told me that,” or “I appreciate that he’s going to share that. I trust him more.” And then I just sit there and I wait, and I can see the wheels turning for them.

The light goes on and they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. But if I don’t think that about him, why would he think about me?” And so that’s part of the reason I’m doing what I do. I know men want to be able to be more vulnerable and feel safe in it.

The more we have these conversations and normalize them, the easier it becomes. It also doesn’t help that we have a lot of unhealthy models of masculinity.

Because of your military background, you are in a strong position to talk on this subject. Do you believe your nine years of military experience have helped your campaign?

I think my military background helps in the work that I do with leaders. It brings in some credibility already. They have their stereotypes, right? Especially here in the United States.

When people know that I’m a Marine, and then they see me able to bring this level of vulnerability that I do, I think it makes them sit up and notice more.

Because if I can do that, they think, “Maybe I’m a little more open to it as well.” It was probably within the last year or so that I started bringing it in when I’m leading courses. At first, it was a little scary, because here’s this thing I’m up to in the world. I ask myself, “How is it going to be received?” What I’ve recognized is that it doesn’t matter how it’s received, it’s about me continuing to do it. And whenever I do there are men and women who say, “Yes, we need more of this.” So yeah, absolutely. I’ve had a few men that were prior military in the room. When I help bring vulnerability in the space when I’m being coached or in how I show up, I’ve had men reach out to me and say, “I really appreciate you doing that.” It helps me feel like I can do it more. So that’s part of what motivates me to keep doing it.

What are the most typical types of transformation you witness in your coaching practice?

The people I coach (usually C-level and senior leaders in organizations) end up with more presence and more ability to be in this moment, which helps them take more powerful action. They bring more vulnerability with themselves, and it helps them connect more deeply with the people in their personal and professional lives. I also work with a lot of coaches going through Certification. Because I’m bringing the vulnerability, whether they know it or not, that’s what they’re going to be getting. Honestly, that’s part of what my reputation has become. I’ve had people refer someone to me and say, “I know somebody who’s looking for coaching. They didn’t say the word vulnerability, but I know that’s what they need. And so, I referred them to you.”

What can you say about engaged fatherhood?

Before my daughter was born, I took a class called Boot Camp for New Dads. It was hands down the best three hours I spent preparing to become a dad. We have Rookie Dads who are the guys about to become fathers, and they have Veteran Dads who come back with their own babies.

In those three hours at Boot Camp for New Dads, I got to see these dads share what it’s like being a dad: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

More importantly, you got to see them taking care of their kids. During that time, there were babies that were crying, there were diaper changes, there was all that, and they just handled it. It was awesome to see these guys being dads because it was so different from a lot of the examples I saw on TV or anywhere else at the time.

I ended up coming back several times as a Veteran Dad with my daughter to help the next batch of rookies. Eventually I said to the guy who was running these workshops, “How do you do that? Because I’d love to be able to do that.” And he said, “I’m glad you asked, because we’re looking for people.” And the guy’s name was Greg Bishop. After that, for the next 10 years, I was leading their workshops, volunteering my time to help run these workshops.

What I love about it is that it empowers new dads to really step into being dads instead of this often-expected role that moms know everything.

It also stemmed from when my daughter was born and I was working for a construction company and wanted to take time off for paternity leave. I got a lot of grief from some of my male co-workers. Comments like, “Why are you taking maternity leave?” or “What are you doing? Raising kids is women’s work.” There was a lot of that old, Mad Men mentality around men’s roles. That just made me more determined that I was going to be involved in my daughter’s life. I became a big advocate of engaged fatherhood, because dads need to be involved. They’re not just on the sidelines. They need to be involved because kids need both parents in there.

We all know moms and dads bring something slightly different to the mix. I like to say in the workshops that the human race has not survived this long just because moms know everything, right?

Men have stuff to contribute. It probably also stems from my parents divorcing when I was four. My dad wasn’t active in my life. I knew as I became a father that I wasn’t going to have my child experience that. There are others doing a lot of great work around equality for fathers getting credit where credit is deserved, and I’m glad that’s happening.

What about the Co-Active model, the Co-Active approach? Which aspect of your work is the “secret sauce” of Co-Active?

It’s twofold. One, while it’s a coaching model, it’s really more. I know, we teach it that way, but at its core, Co-Active is a relationship model.

When I learned Co-Active, it transformed the way I showed up in relationships, even beyond coaching relationships. So, I believe it shows us a new way of being in relationship with each other. It’s also very experiential, and I think that's a key thing. In our courses we get people coaching within minutes of starting, instead of other schools that are very theoretical.  The other thing that’s a powerful piece is Co-Active leadership. The dance that is created between those two leaders at the front of the room? That’s a powerful way to show up and facilitate learning.

It is a different way of people seeing leadership happen, and you get to not just create from yourself and from your co-leader, but also from the space and what shows up for the participants. It really opens people’s eyes as to what the secret sauce is. People come in and know at a fundamental level that this is different. They can’t quite put a finger on it, but it is like nothing they’ve ever experienced. And they want more of it. It’s simply the way we show up.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Co-Active Training Institute. Any solutions offered by the author are environment-specific and not part of the commercial solutions or support offered by CTI.

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